He’s won the World Rowing Indoor Championships five times and is heading for number six when Ward Lemmelijn competes at this year’s World Rowing Indoor Championships in Prague, Czech Republic.

From Belgium, Lemmelijn says he was a late starter to rowing. His main sport was football but when his club went broke and his studies started taking up his time, Lemmelijn looked for an alternative. Knowing his strength was in endurance sport Lemmelijn tried rowing. Within weeks he’d broken all of his school’s indoor rowing records.

In 2019 Lemmelijn became the indoor rowing under-23 World Champion at the inaugural World Rowing Indoor Championships. He then successfully defended it in the following year. The Covid-19 Pandemic saw the events go virtual.

This lull in sports events in Belgium saw the creation of the Container Cup by a local television company. Top athletes completed eight exercises – including running, rowing, cycling, bench press and golf – individually in a container. Lemmelijn won Season Two beating out the likes of cyclist Mathieu van der Poel.

“At the time it was the most watched show in Belgium,” says Lemmelijn. That is when Belgium discovered his talents. Other television show invitations have since come his way.

Lemmelijn kept competing virtually at the World Rowing Indoor Championships during the Covid period and last year he did his 2000m race in a hall with more than 600 people watching and cheering him on.

For 2024 he will be at the event in-person and Lemmelijn can’t wait to have a crowd and noise and lots of it.

“This year I want to compete with competitors right next to me. I want to go for my best performance. I like a good atmosphere and the more sound and screaming the faster I go.”

He’s hoping his coach Hendrik Plevoets will be sitting right behind, shouting encouragement and he hopes to knock two seconds off his personal best.

Alongside Lemmelijn, and also competing in Prague, is Lemmelijn’s brother Lode.

“He’s competing in my age group so it’s special because at the Belgium indoor rowing champs I did 5:38 and he was second fastest behind me. He’s got a lot of potential and is already at 5:51.

Lode is a younger version of Ward but to Ward’s 195cm height, Lode is 210cm. He has to use an adjusted Concept2 erg to fit his body.

Lode is a relative beginner when it comes to rowing.

“He still needs to get the technique right so I’m more advanced,” says Ward. “He’s a full-time physiotherapist and it’s more difficult for him to get on the water as it’s a 1 ½ hour drive. Me and my brother are the only rowers in our area.”

Lemmelijn says his physiology makes him suited to rowing and he has an enviable VO2max (which he’d rather not reveal).

“Also mentally I can set a target which I want to aim for and go all out. Sometimes it means I pass out. I can really push through the pain needed for a good 2k.”

Lemmelijn is a physical educator and fits this into a training schedule that sees him most days getting up at 6:30am, training on the water from 8 – 10 then doing lessons from 11 – 4pm before doing his second training session of the day. His focus is on going to the Paris Olympics but he says for the two weeks before the World Rowing Indoor Championships his attention will be on indoor rowing.

“Normally I’m doing long distance (rows) at this time of year, but I will do intensive workouts to get to race at pace.”

Lemmelijn has noted a roughly two second improvement every competition and so he will be looking for 6:36 in Prague over the 2000m distance.

Ultimately his goal is the world record.

“I was told if I go sub-six then I’m world class. Then 5:50 was good. Then I wanted to be part of the 5:40 list. My next target long term is the world record.”